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View of the front right corner of Talland House (2004)

Never underestimate the power of a Virginia Woolf scholar who has a Virginia Woolf society behind her.

Thanks to the efforts of Maggie Humm, a member of the executive council of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, a plaque commemorating the time Virginia Woolf spent in St. Ives, Cornwall, will be installed at Talland House.

Humm, author of the novel Talland House,was a major force behind the effort. She advocated for the move by providing St. Ives Town Council with useful and persuasive information about the summers Woolf spent at Talland House until the age of 12.

We first reported news about this effort last October. But now, we have more details and photos to share, as tweeted by @MaggieHumm1.

Timeline of the effort and fundraising

According to a story in the Jan. 28, 2022, issue of The St Ives Times & Echo, the British society first submitted a proposal for such a plaque in October of 2020. However, the Town Council did not support it due to lack of funding.

Cornwall Council and local MP Derek Thomas supported later requests from the VWSGB, which resulted in the St. Ives Town Council reversing its stand. Last month, the Council learned that the owner of Talland House also supported the move and the Council approved it by an unanimous vote.

The plaque, which will be black, will be hand-fired in Cornwall. It will be installed on the right-hand side of the east elevation on the second story of the house.

Funding details have yet to be established, but St. Ives Town Council, in partnership with the VWSGB, has launched a fundraising effort on Spacehive.

Part of a heritage trail?

Woolf’s plaque may be part of a larger effort in St. Ives, one that would use the plaques to recognize other notable people that are part of the town’s heritage.

If the heritage tied up in this remarkable property had been fully understood at an early time it may well have become the town’s main ‘heritage asset’. – “Virginia Woolf to finally be celebrated on a plaque at Talland House,” The St Ives Times & Echo, Jan. 28, 2022.

Front page of the Jan. 28, 2022, issue of the St Ives Times & Echo

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Several blue plaques commemorate London addresses at which members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, lived. Now a similar plaque — in black — will recognize Talland House, Virginia Woolf’s summertime residence in St. Ives, Cornwall.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson on the doorstep of 46 Gordon Square, Woolf’s first Bloomsbury home during #DallowayDay2018. A blue plaque noting the significance of the site is to the right of the front door.

The news, shared by Woolf scholar Maggie Humm, author of the novel Talland House, came via the VWoolfListserv, as well as social media.

Her message to the Listserv stated:

Virginia Woolf is to have a plaque on Talland House St Ives. Following my research and many requests (for the VWSGB) St Ives Town Council has just voted unanimously in support. I was able, additionally, to secure the support of the local MP. The plaque will be black (in line with Cornwall’s flag) not blue as London plaques. More details of dates/funding/design to follow.

Blue Plaque at 29 Fitzroy Square, London, where Virginia and Adrian Stephen lived from 1907-1911.

Blue plaque noting that Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived at Hogarth House, Richmond from 1915-1924 and founded the Hogarth Press there in 1917.

The blue plaque on the side of the Tavistock Hotel commemorating Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s tenure at 52 Tavistock Square, London. It was draped in blue at its unveiling in 2018.

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For anyone who reads and loves Virginia Woolf, St. Ives is a magical place. Take a trip back in time by viewing old footage of that Cornish town.
  • From the BBC iPlayer comes “Cornwall: This Fishing Life,” with series 2, episode 4, focusing on St. Ives. It includes old black and white film footage of the place where Woolf and the Stephen family spent their summers until she was 12.
  • Nineteen seconds of color film footage of St. Ives from Claude Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1926) a fascinating social record of inter-war Britain. The St. Ives snippet below is available on the British Film Industry‘s YouTube Channel.
  • And just for fun, check out the video below of a model railroad version of St. Ives, circa the 1950s, created by a former St. Ives resident. In this eight-minute video, he adds his own memories, along with details about constructing the layout. Stuart Clarke of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain shared this video and notes that we “may” be able to see Talland House at the 4-minute, 32-second mark.

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The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain has postponed two events until next year, due to the coronavirus.
  1. The Virginia Woolf Short Stories Conference and General Meeting, originally scheduled for this Oct. 17, will instead be held Saturday April 10, 2021, from 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m., with registration beginning at 10 a.m.
    Venue: Oriental Club, First Floor, 11 Stratford Place, London WIC IES, opposite Bond Street tube.
    Cost: £35 Members, students & conc., £38 non-members. Lunch and refreshments are included. The event is sold out but please email latham_phillips@yahoo.com if you would like to join a waiting list. Please note any member is welcome to attend the AGM at 2 p.m.
  2. The Virginia Woolf and St. Ives Conference, originally scheduled for this fall, will instead be held Thursday, Oct. 7, to Sunday, Oct. 10. For members only.
    Venue: Porthmeor Studios, Back Road West, St Ives, TR26 1NG, Cornwall.
    Details: The conference will include talks on To the Lighthouse, Virginia in St Ives, Julia Stephen, St. Ives Artists and Writers and St. Ives local history. Visits to the Tate St. Ives, Talland House garden and Zennor will be part of the conference. Accommodations to be booked by attendees. Two dinners will be booked in St. Ives, with lunch and refreshments provided during the day. The timetable is designed around the Paddington train.
St. Ives bay

St. Ives Bay, June 2004

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Since I am currently studying in Canterbury, it would be unthinkable for me, Virginia Woolf’s admirer and scholar, not to visit St. Ives, the mythic place that inspired the most of Virginia Woolf’s novels, but particularly Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

Talland House

My own exploration of the site has been inspired by Ratha Tep’s Back to the lighthouse: In search of Virginia Woolf’s lost Eden in Cornwall” that appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 26, 2018.

However, as I and my husband chose to visit St. Ives at the very beginning of November, the weather conditions did not permit us to see all the places we had longed to see.

From London to St. Erth

We started our journey to St. Ives early on Friday morning and after we had arrived in London, we boarded the Great Western Service from London to St. Erth.

Surprisingly, the five-hour journey turned out to be quite tolerable, thanks to the comfortable service and a good read (Woolf’s Orlando). How different, longer and more uncomfortable the Stephens’ journey must have been at the turn of the 20th century, with all the luggage and servants packed for their summer stay in Talland House!

In St. Erth we had to change for a local service running to St. Ives, a beautiful scenic ride alongside the Cornish coast.

In St. Ives

We arrived in St. Ives around 6 p.m. and made our way up the hill to our B&B that I had chosen due to its location with a view of The Island with St. Nicholas Chapel and Godrevy Lighthouse – the lighthouse!

Although we found a lot of useful information about tourist attractions in St. Ives and its surroundings in a folder in our room, the official guide booklet did not mention Virginia Woolf and the Stephens as famous residents of the town.

The view from our window – Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance
The view of the Island and St. Nicholas Chapel

Exploring the town

The following day, which was extremely windy, we started our exploration of the town. In spite of the construction of modern buildings, numerous hotels and other vacation accommodation, the spirit of the old town from the Stephens’ days was still noticeable – crooked hilly streets in the centre, several churches and the incessant sound of breaking waves.

After hiking up to St. Nicholas Chapel, we visited Talland House, which is located right above the local railway station and which is nowadays, unfortunately, encircled by quite ugly blocks of summer apartments. Luckily, the house is now in the hands of Chris and Angela Roberts who try to renovate the house and re-create the garden in its original spirit. You can read about their praiseworthy effort on a sign attached to the wall of the house.

Woolf talks about her father’s discovery of the house in “A Sketch of the Past” as follows:

Father on one of his walking tours, it must have been in 1881, I think – discovered St. Ives. He must have stayed there, and seen Talland House to let. He must have seen the town almost as it had been in the sixteenth century, without hotels, or villas; and the Bay as it had been since time began. It was the first year, I think, that the line was made from St Erth to St Ives – before that, St Ives was eight miles from a railway. Munching his sandwiches up at Trengenna perhaps, he must have been impressed, in his silent way, by the beauty of the Bay; and thought: this might do for your summer holiday, and worked out with his usual caution ways and means.

Main shopping street in the town centre
Talland House – the steps below the left French window are those where the Stephens used to take their family photo
Sign about the current owners’ aim for Talland House garden
Talland House garden

View from the garden

Even though the house is not opened to the public to admire its Victorian beauties, we were still able to appreciate the view from the garden – Godrevy Lighthouse in the distance, which made Leslie Stephen move his London household to St. Ives every summer until 1894. We visited the garden in an inappropriate season so we could not see its blooming flowers.

However, we were able to see the steps below the left French window of the house where the family used to sit and have their family pictures taken. Moreover, the window directly makes you think of the window from the novel To the Lighthouse which symbolised the distance and seemingly impassable boundary between the house and the lighthouse, or the private life of the family and the outside.

Quite surprisingly, despite the distance from the ocean, the breaking of waves was still audible from the garden of Talland House, as well as from our hotel room, with the same intensity as Woolf describes in the following quotation from “A Sketch of the Past”:

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.

The view of the Lighthouse from Talland House garden

The fact that Woolf places this memory of St Ives and at the base of her life-experience bowl reveals how much she was influenced by the place. As she mentions later in the same memoir, “In retrospect nothing that we had as children made as much difference, was quite so important to us, as our summers in Cornwall”, by which she admits the formative effect of the Stephens’ holidays on the Cornish coast. It was so overwhelming to stand in front of the house to which Woolf pays tribute in To the Lighthouse, but sadly, without being able to talk to the Stephens.

To the lighthouse . . . sort of

The following day we decided to pursue James’s childish wish to visit the lighthouse. Owing to windy weather conditions and rough sea we were forced to abandon the idea of making a boat trip and we went by bus to Upton Towans (line T2 for those who would like to do the same) and from there we followed the Coastal Path to Godrevy Beach and the headland providing the best view of Godrevy Lighthouse.

The scenery along the path was astonishing and it was exciting to approach closer and closer the lighthouse which is the main source of the novel’s symbolism. The inner voice in my head was repeating Mr. Ramsay’s excuse “It won’t be fine” and Nancy’s and Lily’s concern about “What does one send to the Lighthouse?”

When we got to the closest viewpoint on the mainland, we sat on a bench and observed waves breaking on the little island’s shore. It is a pity that today you cannot see the lighthouse’s rotating “yellow eye” because it has been replaced by LED light mounted on a platform nearby the original lighthouse.

I must frankly admit that after two days of harsh wind and rain, after getting soaked while watching seals in a cove, I started to be more sympathetic to Mr. Ramsay’s scathing sentence “It won’t be fine” – was he just the more rational one? Did my own journey to the lighthouse reconcile me with the man?

Coastal path to Godrevy Lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse

I would recommend visiting St. Ives to all those who are deeply in love with Virginia Woolf and her writing because it is great to get a sense of the place that I had been imagining in my head for at least a decade.

More Cornish coast magic to explore

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit surrounding villages such as Zennor where Woolf lived when she returned to the town as an adult woman. I am convinced that this visit to St. Ives is not our last one and that we will continue exploring the magic of the Cornish coast and landscape. We definitely need to make a boat trip from St. Ives to the lighthouse, which must be really enjoyable in the summer.

 

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